The Forgotten Avant-Gardist: On Robert Leach’s “Sergei Tretyakov”

By Edward TyermanJuly 14, 2022

The Forgotten Avant-Gardist: On Robert Leach’s “Sergei Tretyakov”

Sergei Tretyakov: A Revolutionary Writer in Stalin’s Russia by Robert Leach

THE LIFE OF Sergei Tretyakov ended with a false biography. In July 1937, the avant-garde writer, dramatist, photographer, and theorist was arrested as he lay in bed in the Kremlin Hospital, the institution that healed Soviet Moscow’s political elite. The typed record of Tretyakov’s interrogation and subsequent confession describes his recruitment by Japanese intelligence during a visit to the Manchurian city of Harbin in 1924. Over the intervening years, according to these documents, he passed information on Soviet industrialization and foreign policy to his Japanese handlers, meeting them frequently at cafés in central Moscow. Convicted of treason, Tretyakov was sentenced to be executed by firing squad.

A patina of biographical fact holds this elaborate tale of espionage together. Tretyakov was living in China in 1924, teaching Russian at Beijing University. His father-in-law lived in Harbin, where he worked on the Russian-built Chinese Eastern Railway. Yet the story of Tretyakov the spy hinges on an obvious falsehood: a gambling debt he incurred in Vladivostok during the Russian Civil War, which his handlers exploited to blackmail him into cooperation. As Robert Leach makes clear in his rich and long-overdue biography, Sergei Tretyakov: A Revolutionary Writer in Stalin’s Russia, Tretyakov’s strict personal morality included an absolute aversion to all forms of gambling. Leach, a theater director and scholar who has directed several restagings of Tretyakov’s plays, also corrects another element in the documentary record: although sentenced to execution, Tretyakov broke free from his guards and threw himself down a stairwell at Moscow’s Butyrka prison, killing himself before the sentence could be carried out.

Beyond the accustomed horror and senselessness of Stalinist state violence, there is a particularly bitter irony in the fact that Sergei Tretyakov’s last testament was a patently falsified document. Tretyakov was the great advocate of the document in early Soviet culture. As a leading member of the Left Front of the Arts (LEF) group in the 1920s, he led the call for a “literature of fact,” a radical avant-garde project that sought to abolish fiction as an outmoded form of aesthetic illusion. Rather than inspired creators, writers should become “factographers,” participating in the transformation of social life by recording and disseminating facts through reportage, travel sketches, memoirs, diaries, and biographies. The “new Lev Tolstoy” of the revolutionary age, for Tretyakov, was the collectively authored newspaper. The novel’s focus on the life of a single protagonist should be replaced by what Tretyakov called the “biography of the thing,” an object-centric narrative that would show how human lives were linked together by the production of bread, timber, coal, cotton, and paper. Tretyakov’s own literary output includes a dizzying array of travel sketches, charting the writer’s encounters with spaces from China to the Caucasus, from Lake Baikal to Berlin and Czechoslovakia. Starting with his trip to Beijing in 1924, these sketches often appeared in print alongside the writer’s own photographs, making Tretyakov, Leach notes, a pioneer of 20th-century photojournalism.

But he was also far more than a journalist, or even just a writer. In Leach’s felicitous phrase, Tretyakov was an “artistic polymath,” one whose extraordinary range of intellectual activities ranged across the transforming mediascape of post-revolutionary society. Beginning his literary career as a futurist poet, Tretyakov first made a serious impact in the theater, where he collaborated with Vsevolod Meyerhold, the doyen of the Russian revolutionary stage, and an iconoclastic young experimenter named Sergei Eisenstein. Leach’s own background in theater makes his accounts of such legendary stagings as Eisenstein’s A Wise Man (1922) and Meyerhold’s The World Upside Down (1923) especially compelling. Tretyakov also worked in cinema, writing the intertitles for Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin and the script for Mikhail Kalatozov’s extraordinary quasi-documentary Salt for Svanetia (1930). He was a serious theorist: Leach sees Eisenstein’s seminal conception of the “montage of attractions” as essentially a coproduction with Tretyakov, who became one of the most vocal theoretical advocates of the LEF program for an art repurposed toward social use. In the 1930s, Tretyakov morphed into a cultural bureaucrat, playing a key role in the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, and editing the prestigious journal International Literature. He even had a successful career in radio: from the late 1920s, Tretyakov became the voice of May Day and Revolution Day on Soviet radio, commenting live from Red Square. He made his last broadcast on May 1, 1937, just two months before his arrest.

And yet, Tretyakov can feel like the forgotten avant-gardist. Although recent academic work on early Soviet culture in Russia and the West increasingly places Tretyakov at its heart, he has never received the international renown of his more famous collaborators. Partly this reflects his own conception of authorship. Tretyakov rejected the myth of the author as hero and teacher, reconceptualizing writing as just one link in the great chain of social production. But his fate also plays a role here. After his arrest, Tretyakov’s books were banned, while a huge quantity of manuscripts, letters, notebooks, and photographs was confiscated from his apartment. The great advocate of fact was left without an archive. The invaluable contribution of Leach’s biography lies in its access to a previously unavailable set of sources that fill out what has hitherto been a fragmentary portrait of Tretyakov’s life. In 1990, Leach staged the first Moscow production of Tretyakov’s 1926 play I Want a Baby, an experimental treatment of the socialist ethics of reproduction that was banned from the stage in 1928. (Leach calls it “one of the most remarkable plays of the twentieth century.”) Through his work on the play, Leach became acquainted with Tatyana (Tanya) Gomolitskaya-Tretyakova, the biological daughter of Tretyakov’s wife Olga Gomolitskaya, and Tretyakov’s adopted daughter. Their conversations over several years, along with her sharing of other materials, including a 20-page memoir by Tretyakov’s sister Nina, form the core source base for this book.

Tretyakov emerges from Leach’s biography as a linchpin of the interwar avant-garde: a masterful mediator, ceaselessly moving and relentlessly productive, connected to everything and everybody. Born in Latvia in 1892, to a Russian father and a German-speaking mother, Sergei (Seryozha) Tretyakov embraced Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution while living in Japanese-occupied Vladivostok during the Russian Civil War. A founding member of the Far Eastern futurist group known as Creation, he forged the connection between this group and the Moscow futurists that created LEF. Vladimir Mayakovsky, a close friend, had a brief affair with Tretyakov’s sister Natasha, and appeared in a performance of his own play Mystery-Bouffe (1918) dangling from a rope with a young Tanya Tretyakova strapped to his body. Tretyakov also forged connections beyond Soviet borders. In the mid-1920s, he spent 18 months teaching Russian in Beijing, interacting with radical Chinese students and relaying news about China’s own turbulent revolutionary modernity back to Soviet readers. In the early 1930s, he traveled to Berlin to promote the Soviet Union’s achievements to the German left. Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Author as Producer” (1934) takes up Tretyakov’s concept of the “operative” writer who does not simply observe but actively participates in the productive life of society. Tretyakov brought his friend Bertolt Brecht to Moscow, and most likely introduced him to Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of artistic estrangement (ostranenie), which Brecht would rework into his famous theory of the theatrical estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt). Indeed, Leach traces Tretyakov’s influence in several plays by Brecht, who referred to the Russian writer as “my teacher.”

Yet for all the effervescence and creative energy of the life it describes, Leach’s book is ultimately a tragedy. As the radical experimentalism of the 1920s gives way to the grim and somber 1930s, with their increasingly rigid state control over culture and growing state violence, Tretyakov’s artistic and theoretical output dries up. The chapters leading up to his arrest paint a portrait of an exhausted man, unable to work, overburdened with administrative duties, frequently suffering from migraines, and seeking treatment for nervous exhaustion. When the secret police came for him, they found him in a hospital bed.

These final chapters also tiptoe around vexed questions of knowledge and complicity. Tretyakov was a prominent promoter of the Soviet collectivization of agriculture, spending several months on a collective farm in Southern Russia and writing several books about the experience. One includes the sketch “The Purge,” an approving portrait of the expulsion of rich peasants, or “kulaks,” from the collective farm. In 1930–’31, Tretyakov was in Germany promoting the successes of Soviet collectivization at a time when famine was already taking hold across large swathes of the countryside. Did Tretyakov know? Probably not, Leach claims; he wants to believe that Tretyakov must have had doubts about collectivization. Was he aware of the accelerating pace of arrests from 1935 onward? He must have known what was happening, Leach assumes; he “must have been at least disconcerted.” But did it shake his faith in the Soviet project? Ultimately Leach has no access to his subject’s interior states, beyond his declining health and “increasingly stormy” piano playing.

These moments fascinate because they illustrate the degree to which Leach’s method as a biographer both converges with and diverges from Tretyakov’s own practice. Tretyakov invented a generic term for his method of biographical writing, something he called a “bio-interview”: a narrative of a subject’s life produced through a collaboration between the subject and a professional writer. This method produced Tretyakov’s longest published work, Den Shi-khua (1930), an account of the life of one of Tretyakov’s students from Beijing based on six months of interviews between the student and his former teacher. In similar fashion, at the heart of Leach’s book is a series of conversations, over several years, between the author and Tanya Tretyakova. Yet the thrust of Tretyakov’s bio-interview, as of his work as a whole, is broadly antihumanist: it seeks to decenter what the LEF theorist considered a bourgeois overprivileging of the interiority of an individual subject over the totality of their social and productive relations. Leach pursues a more traditional biographical task: his aim, in his own words, is to “humanize” Tretyakov, softening the impression of a doctrinaire theoretician with moments of levity and anecdotes from family life. His access to family memoirs results in a biography filled with beautifully illuminating details. We see the young Seryozha drawing cartoons of other family members, picking mushrooms and berries, and constructing an enormous sand labyrinth on the beach. Tretyakov was clearly hospitable, and his various apartments in Moscow play host to a wonderful range of vignettes: Viktor Shklovsky sits on a jellied fish at a party; Alexander Scriabin admires Tretyakov’s piano playing; Paul Robeson gives a private concert for Tanya when she comes home early one day from university. In opposition to the pernicious fictionalizing of the police file biography, Robert Leach’s Sergei Tretyakov: A Revolutionary Writer in Stalin’s Russia offers a portrait of a kind, loyal, principled man destroyed by the cruelty of his times.

The bio-interview Den Shi-khua also ends in speculation and uncertainty: the student returns to China, and Tretyakov admits he has no idea what has become of him. Instead, the text concludes with unanswerable questions. Did this student from a nationalist family ever really become a communist? Was he always telling the truth? In the absence of clear evidence, Tretyakov declines to pass judgment. Profoundly aware of the limitations of factual evidence, he conceived biography as a literary device that gives the reader access to the historical world through which the biographical subject moved, rather than a conclusive glance into that subject’s inner soul. For insight into the historical world of the interwar Soviet avant-garde, with its remarkable creative energies, utopian aspirations, and ultimately fatal closeness to power, Leach’s Tretyakov makes the perfect guide.


Edward Tyerman is an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture (Columbia University Press, 2021).

LARB Contributor

Edward Tyerman is an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on cultural connections and exchanges between Russia and China from the early 20th century to the present, within the wider contexts of state socialism, socialist internationalism, and post-socialism. His first book, Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture (Columbia University Press, 2021), rediscovers the intensive engagement with China in early Soviet culture as a key experiment in the imagining of socialist internationalism.


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